HC Deb 29 April 1983 vol 41 cc1148-51

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Christopher Price

I shall be brief, as a number of us will wish to speak on Third Reading and some matters are perhaps best dealt with then.

Clause 2 is necessary because to make rules governing exceptions excusing people from jury service requites an extension of the rule-making power in section 26 of the Coroners (Amendment) Act 1926 which gives the Lord Chancellor power to make procedural rules. The clause extends that power to allow rules to be made to excuse persons from service in circumstances specified in the rules.

I understand that it is intended that the rules should enable a person summoned for service to make representations to the appropriate officer to the effect that he is not qualified for service or is entitled to be excused. They will confer a right of excusal for persons listed in part III of schedule 1 to the Juries Act 1974 and a discretion for the appropriate officer and the coroner to excuse persons summoned who can show good reason for excusal. They will also allow the coroner to discharge the person summoned if there is doubt about that person's capacity to act as a juror by reason of physical disability or insufficient understanding of English or to withdraw or alter the summons if the juror's attendance is unnecessary or can be dispensed with on any particular day.

The rules will come into effect with the Bill. Again, this will put the coroner's jury system on all fours with that of the courts. This is very much a technical clause and I commend it to the House.

Mr. Lawrence

I am not at all happy about the clause and I am not convinced that it is necessary. The Coroners Act 1887, the Juries Act 1870 and, for all I know, more modern statutes lay down the grounds on which a person may be excused from jury service. The clause invites the Lord Chancellor to make provisional rules in such circumstances as he specifies.

I am unhappy about the clause because I, like all right hon. and hon. Members, think that the current Lord Chancellor is a great and substantial ornament of the judicial system. Long may he remain so. The history of his office will be remembered with great pride in the annals of our law and order system. Nevertheless, a recent example of the Lord Chancellor's rule-making powers is not a happy one. It looks as though, by one recent rule, solicitors will be in two minds about whether to send someone who knows something about a criminal case, a secretary or the tea girl to sit behind counsel in the Crown court to advise him on the intricacies of the case because of the need for cheeseparing on expenses for solicitors' representatives. The Law Society, the Bar Council and everyone else with a close association with the conduct of criminal trials feel strongly about that. If that is an example of a Lord Chancellor's rule that we can expect to be made, I question the need for the clause.

It is better for the present system to be used. Today a judge exercises his common sense about whether a juryman should be excused service. If a juryman is about to be engaged in a long trial or a long inquest he will be asked whether he has a business interest which is more urgent so that he does not suffer personal loss on a substantial scale. That happens in the Central Criminal Court every day. Potential jurors are asked by the judge whether they will suffer if they sit on the jury on a case lasting four or five weeks. A business man who has no one to look after his shop, for instance, will be excused by the judge, using his common sense.

Once, a potential member of a jury asked the judge whether he could be excused from jury service. The judge asked, "Upon what ground?" The man said, "My wife is about to conceive." The learned judge replied, "I think that you mean that your wife is about to be confined. But whether you are right or I am right I do think you should be there." The judge exercised his common sense when deciding whether the excuse should be accepted. We should be careful before we approve clauses which encourage the Lord Chancellor to make more cheeseparing rules which may not be acceptable.

Mr. Wheeler

I share the feelings of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence) about the clause because I also spotted the words and the purpose of subsection (2), and I wondered why it was necessary for the Lord Chancellor, eminent, distinguished and well-regarded though he is, to be responsible for issuing rules to excuse service as juror. Like my hon. and learned Friend, I pondered on how extensive such rules would be.

In the nature of human life and experience, it is difficult to write into rules every situation which common sense may suggest should be a reason for excusing a person from service on a coroner's jury. In the last 25 years, the House and Ministers of the Crown have persisted in creating hundreds if not thousands more criminal offences by extending the criminal law and by extending rules and regulations under statutes which the House has approved. As a result, we have also created a sort of subsidiary publishing and printing industry in books of law to explain it all to the legal profession and other related bodies—to such an extent that no one now knows where he stands in regard to the criminal law.

In this eminently desirable Bill, we are proposing to create yet more rules to try to deal with a subject which ought to be at the discretion of the coroner as a matter of common sense. I look forward to hearing the views of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State. It may be that he will say that the Lord Chancellor does not have it in mind to publish rules and will leave clause 2(2) in abeyance.

I move on to subsection (4), which contains a hint about the historic nature of the office of coroner, since the coroner of the Queen's household—

Mr.Christopher Price

On a point of order, Mr. Dean. I have no wish to inhibit the hon. Gentleman's flow, but there will probably be a debate on clause 3, of which subsection (4) is part.

The Second Deputy Chairman (Mr. Paul Dean)

Perhaps I can help the hon. Member for Paddington (Mr. Wheeler). He was addressing his remarks to clause 2, which is correct. He referred to subsection (4), and I understood him to mean subsection (2). In any event, we are discussing clause 2 at the moment, and not clause 3.

Mr. Wheeler

I am indebted to you, Mr. Dean. I was straying over into clause 3. My eyes had failed to read the figure accurately. I shall make my comments on clause 3(4) in due course.

Mr. Mellor

I endorse what the hon. Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Price) said about clause 2. It has exactly the effect that he suggested, and my Department agrees entirely with the way that it is drafted.

Let me deal with the objections of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence) and my hon. Friend the Member for Paddington (Mr. Wheeler). I understand their arguments, and I hope to be in a position to reassure them.

Both my hon. Friends warmly endorsed the exercise of discretion by judges in the normal court system about a wide range of issues concerning juries, but a number of those powers derive specifically from the Juries Act 1974. If certain provisions of that Act are to become part of the system of coroners' juries, it is essential that there should be rules under clause 2. All that we are trying to do here is to make coroners' juries subject to the conditions that apply in other courts.

I should also say, to defend my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor, that he makes the rules in name only. If the rules are defective, that is the fault of the Home Office, because we advise him on the rules and take responsibility for them. That happy fact enables me further to reassure the Committee by explaining the points that we wish to cover in the rules.

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We envisage that the rules will enable a person summoned to make representations to the appropriate officer if he is not qualified for jury service or wishes or is entitled to be excused, and will confer a right of excusal on persons listed in part III of schedule 1 to the Juries Act 1974. As my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook) knows, that is the Act that is applied in Crown courts and elsewhere and that would not otherwise apply in this jurisdiction unless we were able to incorporate it through the rules. The rules will confer a statutory based discretion on the appropriate officer to excuse persons summoned who can show good reasons for excusal, power for the coroner to discharge the summons if there is doubt about the capacity of the person summoned to act as juror by reason of physical disability or insufficient understanding of English, and power to withdraw or alter the summons if the juror's attendance is unnecessary or can be dispensed with on any particular day.

I hope that that explanation will allow my hon. Friend to feel that that is a necessary part of the Bill, not an unreasonable addition to our law.

Mr. Ivor Stanbrook (Orpington)

After this legislation, will the position of coroners' juries be the same as for other juries? If a juryman is seriously inconvenienced or there is substantial hardship caused to him if he serves on the jury, even though he is not otherwise disqualified, will it be within the discretion of the coroner to accept that reason and dismiss the jurer?

Mr. Mellor

That is what the rules would achieve.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

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